By Ron Wells | December 28, 1998

Um, the emperor has no clothes. Well, ok, he’s got some funky boxers, but the clown shoes have got to go. If he’s not going to come outside for twenty years, he should at least ask somebody how he looks before he steps through the door.
(DEEP breath) Okay, let me just say there’s definitely a great artist at work here. Director Terrence Malick (“Badlands”, “Days of Heaven”) tells the story of Army rifle company C as they move through the battle for Guadalcanal, the turning point in the Pacific theatre during World War II, while exploring the toll war takes on man and nature. Pretension ensues. Spielberg wins.
As you may surmise, this film has some problems. Sadly, this time nearly all the blame lies with one person: Terrence Malick. Malick has made two films over 20 years ago justly considered masterpieces by most of Hollywood. He also has a reputation as a genius eccentric. These two facts combined bought him the ticket to make this film any way he wanted, with nearly any cast he could want, with final cut for $50 million and hands off from the studio. At this point, the director has no one to tell him, “No Terry, that’ll ruin the picture” on a HUGE movie with five times the speaking parts of his other films put together. Spielberg has been taking his knocks from critics for the last 20 years and particularly after “Amistad”, has learned when to knock it off with his bag of tricks (OK, except for the framing sequence) and have a CLEAR vision of what he wants to do when he starts a picture.
There are at least four major problems Malick made with the picture. The FIRST is the script. He started it in 1988. He apparently included EVERYTHING from James Jones’ novel, along with any extra themes the director wanted to explore. He then shot the entire script, along with improvisations and random nature photography, exposing 1 million feet of film. According to reports, he believed he would “find” the final film during production or editing. You know, like “Batman and Robin”. The results appear like an eight hour film edited to 160 minutes. Character threads appear abruptly and end without conclusion. Six months ago I heard Adrien Brody had a major part in the film as Corporal Fife. Now all I see is him looking scared with a grand total of three lines of dialog. Nick Nolte plays an over-the-hill, West Point Colonel set up for a fall from grace but disappears after a scene with a bigger character. John Cusack has a major battle scene, a confrontation with an officer and disappears. Bill Pullman was completely cut out of the film. The result is confusion.
The SECOND major problem is the constant voice overs. Speaking the thoughts in a man’s head in a book works well, but in film this is generally a mistake. It can work, as a rule, in two cases; as the voice of the protagonist recounting or commenting on events of the past, or as the counterpoint to a character’s actions on the screen. Malick himself used the device to great effect in “Badlands”, but doesn’t know when to knock it off in “Red Line”. Here, every major character speaks their thoughts at various times for very different reasons. Sometimes it works. Most of the time it doesn’t. Too often, we’re distracted from the action on the screen while a character preaches or philosophizes to us.
The THIRD major problem is the incessant use of intrusive star cameos. “Saving Private Ryan” did this once, where you are removed from the story by thinking, “Oh look! It’s Ted Danson from ‘Cheers’ in a WWII movie!”
With “Red Line” you think, “Oh look! It’s John Travolta/Woody Harrelson/John Cusack/George Clooney in a WWII movie! It’s just like ‘The Love Boat’!” The stars shift your focus away from the protagonist and bring baggage that works against the roles they’re playing.
The FINAL problem concerns producing films about historical events, particularly something as over-filmed as World War II. What do the filmmakers bring to the table? With “Full Metal Jacket”, Kubrick depected a harsh view of boot camp and previously unfilmed urban combat. With “Saving Private Ryan”, Spielberg realized a brutal Vietnam-style vision of the biggest battle of WWII to demonstrate the true cost of “The Last Great War”.
What’s Malick vision? He tried to make a WWII ‘art’ film split between an experimental and traditional narrative. This comes down to scenes of nature juxtaposed with images of war and near traditional, but well executed battle scenes. It sometimes works, but Malick adds the philosophical ramblings of Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) to pound the point in. The whole picture copiously employs voice-overs to tell us what we could figure out from the images, mostly about the insanity of war. This isn’t even the first time this book was adapted! A version was filmed in 1964 with Kier Dullea and Jack Warden. That version supposedly has great battles with a lot of preachiness about the insanity of war like… the new film. Hmm, war… bad. Not exactly revolutionary, huh?
You know what I want to see? I want some war films about the losers BY the losers. History’s written by winners, baby. How many German films can you remember about their experience in World War II other than “Das Boot”? What about the Japanese? The most disturbing WWII film I’ve seen this year is not “Ryan” but the Russian made “Come and See” which was made in 1985! It’s the most nihilistic portrayal of “The Great War” I’ve ever seen. It sure beats Nick Nolte receiving a lecture from General Barbarino.

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  1. andrewaldenmiller says:

    I agree that the stars’ cameos distract. I disagree with everything else.

    The first time Whit’s voiceover appeared, I too thought “Oh no.” The device was strange, but in short order it worked for me. One might just as easily say Malick impossibly attempted to cover too much time and space through flashbacks. I don’t say that. To me, a combat veteran if it matters, these devices were essential to two functions the movie preforms beautifully. It allows us to experience the perspective of men in the most dramatic of situations, revealing their nature is identical to yours and mine in normal situations. Jumping from character to character reinforces this notion, and it lays the foundation for the central theme: we are one. This movie is profound, as human as anything by Renoir.

    I think the mistake of this review is that it attempts to understand Thin Red Line as a war movie. That’s perfectly understandable, of course, but it is inadequate for an understanding of what Malick tried to do (and successfully did, in my opinion). Do you really think he set out to make a war movie, or do you think he set out to make a Malick movie?

  2. Louis the Only says:

    A preachy, pretentious piece of New Age crapola. The worst war movie I’ve ever seen. It desecrates the memory men and women who fought for the US against Hirohito/Tojo and Hitler by ignoring the actual people and generation they were and replacing them with a bunch of vague Nineties art house/Sundance cardboard cutouts. It even desecrates the Japanese by making them look like a bunch of wimps…who just happened to start taking over half the world from their tiny island nation. (Imagine that! Those Filipinos, Manchurians, etc., must have been even bigger wimps, huh?)

    This movie also presents an entirely passive, and I’d say toxic, vision of the manhood of these soldiers. They knew war was hell. They knew it was awful. They manned up and did a difficult, ugly job that everyone else twiddled their thumbs over (I’m thinking of England and France letting Hitler have Anschluss and annex most of Europe, la da, maybe he’ll wear himself out soon, right? RIGHT?).

    And so this movie left me with the impression of it being a sort of New World Order propaganda film. See, boys and girls? This war was just a great big misunderstanding! Underneath we’re ALL the same, and ALL peaceful.

    Reminder: Heidegger was a Nazi from 1933 to 1945.

  3. Amy says:

    I agree that this is a GREAT review, even if I don’t completely agree with the critic! Malick is definitely not for everyone. As Ron discusses toward the end of his review, Malick is definitely an experimental artist who messes with narrative, visuals and our heads. On top of that, all of his work is philosophically derived and unless you’re a Martin Heidegger fan, his films are difficult to understand. Probably his most accessible film is Badlands, one of my all time favorites.

  4. Andrew says:

    this is a great review. this is most likely the worst war movie I’ve ever seen, and I like war movies.

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